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Designer Diary: Union Stockyards

by Duane Wulf

The Vision

I can’t say that I started designing Union Stockyards with theme first or mechanisms first. Both theme and mechanisms came together at the same time. I wanted a game about the Union Stockyards in Chicago, and I wanted a game with a non-random supply/demand driven market central to gameplay, and this theme and mechanism meshed from the beginning.

The first time I was introduced to the history of Chicago’s Union Stockyards was when I was in college in the late 1980s. I majored in animal science at South Dakota State University, and I remember visiting the Meat Lab at Iowa State University, where they had this huge framed print on the wall that was an aerial photo of the “Great Union Stock Yards”.

The Great Union Stock Yards

I was blown away! I stared at that photo and couldn’t imagine that a place this big had ever existed. I had been to the Sioux Falls Stockyards (which operated until 2009) many times, but this Union Stockyards was at least thirty times the size!

Since that day, I have been fascinated by the history of the Union Stockyards (1865-1971). I have visited the site in Chicago three times. While designing this board game, I have read nine different books and reports about the Union Stockyards, starting with The Jungle (1906) by Upton Sinclair.

I wrote the first concepts for the board game on my cell phone during a flight from Tucson to Dallas on August 8, 2017. The final game doesn’t look much like those first notes, except that it is a worker-placement game and has historical events that affect game play.

I love economic euro games, and I especially like supply/demand driven markets. I drew inspiration from many great games. I like how the market works in Clans of Caledonia, and I like the simple market mechanism used in Power Grid and Brass; however, these market mechanisms are not central to gameplay. In those games, you need to pay attention to the markets and adjust your decisions accordingly, but there are other aspects of the game more important than the market.

The market is the main focus in games like Stockpile and Panic on Wall Street!, but market changes are determined randomly, whereas I was trying to design a low-randomness game. I wanted players’ actions to determine how prices change up or down, and I wanted the market to be central to gameplay. Both Raccoon Tycoon and Excavation Earth have slick market mechanisms that are player-determined and central to gameplay, but I wanted my game to have less direct (i.e., more subtle) market manipulation and also be less dependent on the timing of your actions. All these great games and others influenced the final design of Union Stockyards.

From that beginning four years ago, my goals for Union Stockyards have been:

1. A non-random supply/demand-driven market that is central to gameplay.

2. A historical theme based on the great Union Stockyards in Chicago.

3. A game that I love playing and that requires countless plays before I tire of it.

The Market Mechanism

The part of Union Stockyards that took the longest to finalize and went through countless iterations was the market mechanism. It required almost four years of playtesting to get to the final market.

In Union Stockyards, you are a meat packer, and therefore you make more profit when livestock prices are low and less profit when livestock prices are high. Each of three livestock types (cattle, pigs, sheep) have a price, and these prices go up or down independently, so sometimes during the game, cattle may be low priced (highly profitable) and pigs may be high priced (lowly profitable) or vice versa.

I first tried a market mechanism similar to Power Grid and Brass in which animals were placed on tracks with descending prices, but this wasn’t that exciting for something that was supposed to be the focus of the game. In addition, earlier turn order was extremely advantageous, more than I desired.

I then tried a mechanism in which at the beginning of each round, players secretly determined their slaughter capacity (demand) for the three livestock types (cattle, pigs, sheep), then simultaneously revealed their plans. The sum of the respective demands then drove the prices for each livestock type up or down.

I tried numerous variations of this mechanism during a year of playtesting, but eventually scrapped it because it felt too random. Players had to make this important slaughter capacity decision with too little information. Sometimes a player would reveal a plan completely different than expected, causing crazy market swings to the benefit or detriment of others. While this might be fun in a quick simple game, it was not what I wanted for a low-luck economic Eurogame.

A breakthrough came when I started basing the market adjustment on “leftovers”. A certain number of animals would be in the yards at the start of each round. Players would slaughter animals during the round, and the number of animals remaining in the yards at round’s end would determine the next round’s prices. If more animals were left over, the price would go down. If few or no animals were left over, the price would go up. For example, when players choose to slaughter more cattle, the price of cattle will be higher the following round.

I developed Monte Carlo algorithms that simulated thousands of game plays in order to get the price adjustments just right, but playtesters don’t always behave like computer simulations. If players didn’t slaughter very much, it would drive all of the prices down and make the game very loose and too easy for players to make big profits. It was a good mechanism, but sometimes the game would break.

The final breakthrough came when I made prices adjust according to relative leftovers instead of absolute leftovers. Instead of prices adjusting based on the exact number of animals remaining, the remaining animal numbers are compared to one another. In the final version, the livestock type(s) with the most animals remaining have a price reduction of $2, and the livestock type(s) with the fewest animals remaining have a price increase of $3.

This market mechanism is not dependent on how many or few animals the players choose to slaughter overall, but instead depends on which animals they choose to slaughter. It also allows for clever market manipulation decisions, especially by players later in turn order. For example, let’s say that currently two of each livestock type (cattle, hogs, sheep) are in the yards and you are taking the final turn of the round. If you choose to slaughter sheep, you are not only causing sheep prices to increase for the next round, but you are also causing cattle and hog prices to decrease. The remaining inventory for cattle/hogs/sheep would then be 2/2/1, meaning that cattle and hogs would have the most animals and decrease by $2 while sheep would have the fewest animals and increase by $3.

Finally, I had found the market mechanism for which I had been searching. It is simple, non-random, able to be manipulated by players, thematic to commodity markets, and, as far as I know, unique among board games.

The Buildings

During the early years of the Union Stockyards, so much blood, guts, hair, and other waste was dumped into the South Fork of the Chicago River that the water bubbled from methane and hydrogen sulfide gas and became known as “Bubbly Creek”. Gustavus Swift, founder of Swift and Co., would often go to Bubbly Creek and lament how much material was going to waste. He would then challenge his chemists and engineers to find ways to create profits out of the waste. Indeed, many new products and processes were developed over the years to capture value from every part of the animal. It was said that Chicago packers “used every part of the pig except the squeal”.

From the early stages of game design, Union Stockyards included building cards that increase your profit margins on cattle, pigs, or sheep, mainly by discovering better uses for the various parts of an animal. For example, the Lard Refinery increases the value you receive from pigs by $3.

All building cards in the game are based on factories that existed in Chicago’s Union Stockyards. Some buildings that improve your cattle margin are the Hide Tannery, Bone House, and Soap Works. To increase your pig profits, build the Curing Room, Sausage Kitchen, Hair Factory, or Pepsin Laboratory. Sheep margins may be improved by building the Wool Pullery or Violin String Factory. Some buildings are more powerful than others, but are also more expensive to build.

It was fairly straightforward to balance the building effects through simple math; however, determining the mechanisms for acquiring a building required many iterations and playtests. One option was simply card-tableau building, but I liked the idea of having area-control aspects on the game board. I liked the player decisions that area control added, as well as the visual effect of Packingtown “growing” over the course of the game.

I tried many versions and eventually settled on buildings of different sizes, shapes, and colors that are placed on a grid. Each grid square is a piece of land that costs $1, so the larger the building, the higher the cost. The buildings are rectangle or L-shaped and range from 2-8 squares in size. The wooden buildings are of varying height, achieving the visual effect of a growing Packingtown.

Other game elements of buildings include an “efficiency” bonus for placing like-colored buildings next to each other, specialist bonuses if you have buildings with matching icons, and the opportunity to make railroad connections that may give you endgame rewards.

Labor Unions

A large part of Union Stockyards’ history involved labor unions, labor unrest, and worker strikes. The Amalgamated Meat Cutters union was established in 1897 and still exists today as the United Food and Commercial Workers. Worker conditions were often poor, especially during the early years of the Stockyards, and several significant labor strikes occurred. Working conditions slowly improved, and labor advancements were made, including the eight-hour day.

Striking Chicago packinghouse workers, 1904

For thematic reasons, I wanted labor unions to play a role in the game; however, early editions of the game didn’t include this aspect because I could not figure out how to implement it in a manner that created interesting player decisions. Eventually, I came up with a “union spirit” track. If union spirit reached a certain level, a “strike” would occur.

Initially, each player had their own union spirit track, but the final game of Union Stockyards has a central union spirit track for all players. I like the semi-cooperative element that it adds, and it is more thematic. (In historic stockyards strikes, all packinghouse workers would strike at once.)

If a strike occurs, all players lose one worker to the picket line and gain one low morale token. Endgame scoring results in negative points depending on how many low morale tokens you have. During the game, you can take the “eight-hour day” or “pay raise” actions to discard one low morale token (benefitting you only) and decrease union spirit (benefitting all players). It creates a tension between wanting to accomplish a lot through your actions and keeping your morale from getting too low. New players often ignore worker morale to their detriment. If you want happy workers, you must sacrifice some business growth, and that is difficult for some players. On several occasions, experienced players advised new players, “Don’t ignore worker morale!”

Year Cards

From my first notes in 2017, Union Stockyards included “events” in the form of year cards. I enjoy events in games like Orléans and Maracaibo that affect all players equally. The inclusion of year cards also enriches the theme through the use of actual historical events. Several events were obvious choices, such as the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago and World War I. Through research of Chicago, U.S., and world history from 1875 through 1930, I compiled a list of 41 historical events that had some connection to Chicago or the stockyards, then culled the list to 24 year cards in the final game.

Early prototypes had year cards determining the number of incoming livestock and sometimes affecting meat prices. However, I wanted the market to be the central part of the game and market changes to be dictated by player action. While thematic, the year cards were adding too much randomness to the market.

A later addition to the game that I especially like is worker-placement action spaces on year cards. These provide an additional action available only for that year, and this action is usually slightly more powerful than the normal action spaces on the game board.

The game is played over six years (rounds), with a random year card drawn starting each round. Four year cards are designated to each year, so thanks to the random set-up and a mix of events being “bad” and “good”, no two games are ever the same.

Branch Houses

A “branch house” was a combination warehouse and sales office that meat packers would typically build in large population areas. These branch houses would receive meat shipments from the slaughterhouse almost daily by rail.

I added branch houses to Union Stockyards in prototype version 4. Players place branch houses in “markets” and typically receive both immediate and endgame benefits. The immediate benefits — brand reputation or higher meat margins — have not changed much from the first version. For example, building a branch house in the Jewish boroughs of New York City will increase your lamb margin.

Endgame scoring has gone through many iterations. In an early version, the player with the most branch houses in each market received the endgame bonus. In the version shown below, branch houses were placed from left to right and limited by the number of tan-colored spaces. The highest uncovered value at game end was the value of each branch house in that market. This simulated “dividing up” the market share of that market.

In the final version, the endgame value of a branch house is determined by how many rail connections have been made to that market.

During game set-up, rail connection tokens are randomly placed on the railroad side of Packingtown. When a player places a building next to a rail connection token, that token is flipped and placed in the corresponding market (i.e., you have made a rail connection to that market). Two “wild” rail connection tokens allow the player to connect to the Market of their choice.

At game’s end, each branch house is worth $2 for each rail connection present in that market. This creates interesting decisions when placing both branch houses and buildings. When placing branch houses, you need to consider both the immediate benefit and the potential endgame benefit. When placing buildings, you can either try to make a rail connection or block a rail connection, depending on whether you have branch houses in that market or not. There can also be a race to build towards the “wild” rail connections, but you don’t want to connect railroads too early if you haven’t established any branch houses yet.

Theme vs. Mechanisms

I wanted to design a game based on the Union Stockyards because I find its history fascinating, but I also wanted an awesome economic game that was fun to play even if you ignored the theme. When it came to the question of theme versus mechanisms, I would always choose the best mechanisms — but perhaps my greatest joy in the process of designing was racking my brain to find fun mechanisms that meshed with the theme. Like finding a gold nugget, it was so rewarding when I could finally identify the perfectly fun mechanism that also made thematic sense. The union spirit/strike mechanism and the branch house endgame values are two examples that went through numerous iterations until that perfect mechanism was found.

The buildings are all thematic. The Hide Tannery adds $4 to your beef value because leather is the highest valued by-product from cattle. The Casing House adds $2 to your pork value because hog small intestines are the most common natural sausage casings. The Sausage Drying Room adds only $1 to your pork value, but adds two stars to your brand reputation because you are producing premium dry sausages like salami and pepperoni and putting your name on the package.

The year cards are all thematic. You can increase your brand reputation by paying for an exhibit at the 1893 World’s Fair, or you can increase your beef value, and that of all other players, by forming a beef trust. When Upton Sinclair releases his muckraking novel The Jungle, all players will lose brand reputation.

Other small thematic details were incorporated. I wanted the money tokens to be $1/$3/$10 because it is easier for making change than $1/$5/$10, and when I did some research, I discovered that the United States produced $3 gold coins during the late 1800s. All three money token denominations are from that era.

The Union Stockyards in Chicago was exactly one square mile, which instinctively led to a square game board. The Packingtown, yards, and rail connections on the game board correspond to their actual historical locations.

The building cards, year cards, and player mats all include historical flavor text for those players interested in learning the history. I know that not all players will be interested in the theme, and some people will be absolutely turned off by the theme, but to me it is a fascinating piece of our history. At the end of the day, I tried to design a great game regardless of the theme. I have had numerous playtests with gamers who completely ignored the theme and still thoroughly enjoyed the game. That makes me happy.

That’s me, at the Union Stock Yard gate in Chicago

I am super thankful to each of the many playtesters who have played the countless iterations of Union Stockyards. Thank you to artist Andrew Bosley and graphic designers Joe Weber and Jason Vulk for making the game beautiful and intuitive. And thank you to all the designers and publishers of the following list of great games that influenced Union Stockyards. I would not liken my design directly to any of these games, but each had some influence on an aspect of the design: Champions of Midgard, Clans of Caledonia, Excavation Earth, Maracaibo, Orléans, Power Grid, Raccoon Tycoon, Stockpile, and Viticulture: Tuscany.

Duane Wulf

Solid Rock Games


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